This morning, my email included four consecutive emails from a local friend, followed by four consecutive emails from a friend I've never meet. Continuations, all of them, of previous conversations--eight subjects, all addressed in the space of twenty or thirty minutes.
It got me thinking about the way that email changes our communications. I don't mean because it's in writing (though we do often express ourselves differently in writing) or because of the delay in response or any of the other things that are obvious to the format. No, the thing that caught my attention this morning was the changing of gears, the quicksilver slipping from a response about the stress I'm under at work or someone else's problem with a friend to a funny comment in a forum or a cute story about my daughter's friends.
In real life--or, I should say, in the flesh--that slippage would never take place. I'd never look at someone who had just expressed grave medical concerns to me and say, "I heard the best joke this morning." I'd be taken aback if I said to someone, "You know, I'm under so much pressure at work that I actually think I'm going to quit without another job" and she said, "What do you think of this color for my kitchen curtains?"
But we do that all the time in email, shifting from religious philosophy to political debate to dinner plans to pictures of our kids to anecdotes to financial problems and back again every time we click "send" and move on to the next. There's a big advantage to this format, and one I've always valued--it allows time for reflection, to digress and return to the core point, to expand a conversation in different directions without losing the original thread. That doesn't happen when we sit down to talk--if we branch off in a particular direction chances are that the original thread is lost, or that it has evolved significantly enough that we never return to follow any of the other possible offshoots and sideroads it could have invited. Not so with email; I can go back in a day or two or even two weeks later and answer again with a new thought or a different side-route. I can digress and easily refocus just by going back to the original email.
This morning, though, I started to wonder whether that very thing that allows us to dig deeper somehow keeps us shallower, if revisiting something in small bites over and over again just isn't the same as immersing in it. When a friend tells me that she's worried about her marriage and I respond with the best thoughts I have, but then immediately respond to another comment about her horseback riding lessons, am I really giving her issue my full attention, really feeling it instead of just thinking about it? When I intersperse theological analysis with plans to meet up for lunch and the frustrations of chaperoning a high school football game, am I really opening myself up to as much insight as I otherwise might?
I think not. And maybe it's not all about the format--maybe it's just as much about the way the world is moving so fast that everything happens on the fly these days. But whether it's a cause or an effect, it suddenly seems to me to have the same effect on conversation that hyperlinks had on our ability to read and digest longer, more in-depth writing, and it's a little alarming to me.